The Going Out

 

 

 

Now it’s a rush of wings, a flight towards an open door. The farm is sold, all but the signing on the dotted line. The airline tickets are bought and paid for. The objects that remain must be dealt with, each held in the hand and a decision made—in the trash, to a friend, in one of the few boxes for a small storage space, in the small suitcase. Overwhelming.

But soon everything will be done. The things designated or sold will have to be dispersed within days, the eyes looked into so many times looked into again, deeply for a moment, and the body that somehow contains that world held close and then released, the ache of longing coming to take up residence in my heart.

We will be homeless for now. All that we retain must be needed either for the journey of a few months or for the time when we will send a few boxes across a continent and an ocean to a place where we will settle again, perhaps grow some vegetables, plant some fruit trees and live for however many days we have.

Just as when we leave this body, we must discover what is important to retain, what is most precious. What we hold on to is not what we think we might possibly need someday, the insurance against some contingency, but what clings most adamantly to our essence. Over these past few weeks when things have come in a flood, wiping away every moment of space in the time of my days, it is my writing that I have yearned for from waking to sleeping. It has become an essential element of life, as necessary as the act of participation, the absorption of all that beauty in whatever combinations of elements await me in that time between the opening of my eyes from the world of dreaming and when they close at night.

One type of waiting may be over, but another more encompassing period of waiting remains. That waiting before the going out, that waiting each day for the closing of the eyes, the dreams, the deep quiet, the encompassing silence, the loss of all objects that cling, all thoughts that stick to the space of the mind, all emotions that swim in our waters. Gone. Gone. Letting it go.

A Window in Time (Part 5): Greece, The Arrival

There is a purpose to this exercise. It is an exploration of that interior space where imagination and memory meld their etheric essence. It is a practice, a meditation.

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We were gliding. It was a big boat, full of people but, although they must have rocked us gently, the waves meant nothing. Once we were away from the busy harbor with its sandstone and buff-painted buildings shining along the shores, it was only the presence of dark blue sea and islands, first in a kind of mist on the horizon and then in the bright glare of the full day’s southern sun, gliding past like mythic backdrops. Lovers leaned against each other on the benches on deck. Children ran with a parent in their wake. I was already entranced.

The four of us claimed two benches linked back to back by spreading out our meager gear, sitting near a young man carrying a guitar without a case. We sat together or walked when we felt the urge, our Greek friend chatting with other passengers from time to time, interpreting for the rest of us in mixtures of French and English. As the sun set and the night sky thick with stars emerged, the sea around us became infinite, pricks of pure white light in swaths poking through the black ink.

All the other visions of that journey are lost in that spreading well of night. When consciousness returns, we have made our way from Patras to Athens, most likely on a bus that went for hours through the night. My fresh, sharp senses were filled with the incredibly sweet fragrances of the countryside of Greece—the smell of grapes and jasmine mingled with the scents of roasting lamb and garlic and rosemary. It was a revelation that awakened something deeply joyful in the middle of my chest and spread a wash of light in my head. And then we were there, in Athens, Syntagma Square in August of 1969.

We naively had waltzed, as young Americans could, into a country that, with the tacit approval of the CIA and the American government, had been under the rule of a right-wing military junta since 1967. The huge photos of its appointed Prime Minister, Papadopoulos, dominated the square and were present everywhere. Back at home,  concentrated on the war in Vietnam, finishing our high-school years, we had no awareness of the iron rule of military law in this country rarely discussed in the news, the torture going on its jails, the exile of countless journalists and politicians and the repression of civil rights. Now it was jarring, somehow inexplicable in the context of this city both modern and ancient.

In Athens itself, what evidence existed of this horror was behind closed doors. The atmosphere in the streets seemed flowing and free. It was not until we travelled with our Greek friend to his hometown south of Athens that we began to feel the palpable pressure of repression.

In the heat of the full day, our friend led us through the huge square to one of the spreading streets leading away from the vast open space into the wide avenues of the city. On the ferry, he had told us of his plan to stay a couple of nights at–of all places–the YMCA of Athens. the safest and cleanest cheap place to stay. He asked us to join him. He had stayed there many times before on his way from the ferry to his family home in Glyfada.

He navigated us down the sidewalks of Stadiou Avenue, lined with tall white business buildings, and into another street that began to feel more contained–first-floor shop doors opening one after another into small groceries, restaurants, clothing shops, cafes partially filled with people. It was not a city of crowds, but yet had a sense of a vibrant humming of human life. We were tired and hungry. It was almost unbearably hot, well over a hundred degrees. The pavement oozed with the smells of concrete and asphalt and piss, the beautiful smell of roasting meat and garlic wafting from somewhere on the sides on every block.

One more turn and down the street. In front of us gleamed, in the hot sun of the late afternoon, a three or four story building with many windows, modern, lined at street level with white pillars–the Y. We checked in at a desk on the first floor and paid for four beds, two in a women’s room and two in a men’s.

My blond friend and I climbed the white wide stairs up to the big room where several beds were made up with simple coverlets and pillows. We seemed to have the place to ourselves. It was stifling hot, with a ceiling fan turning slowly and big windows facing out onto the air above the street, open on their sashes as far as they could go. Everything seemed to be white and spacious, the heat, the walls, the beds, the sounds of traffic and occasional shouting voices in the streets, horns, the pulsing ambulance sound of European cities. It felt like swimming in waves of heat, wanting badly to come up for air. We lay down on two of the small beds near a window in this sauna of white light and sweated into a drowsy state and then sleep.

We may have slept on and off until a hot morning light seeped into our confused washed-out heat dreams. We dressed and went downstairs to the cavernous cafeteria. Our two friends were already sitting at a table with bowls and plates of food spread in front of them. Our curly headed Greek/English friend, Ion, playing host in this country of half of his DNA, came over to show us how to order. There were ceramic pots of white yogurt with a skim of yellowish cream on top, figs, grapes, white bread in hefty slices, pats of butter, honey in a pot to drizzle by the spoonful on the warm bread, and cups of hot Turkish coffee. The yogurt was the creamiest, smoothest, most deliciously tangy sweetness I have tasted in this life. We ate well, enjoying the bounty of cheap fresh food, chatting about plans.

We were only there for a day and another night. We chose to go directly to the Parthenon.

As we walked out the front door onto the street, the force of the heat hit with all its weight. Though still fairly early in the day, the newspaper vendor where Ion stopped for a copy of the English language newspaper told him that the thermometer had already hit 43 degrees Celsius. As we had travelled across Southern France and then Italy, I had begun to shift my sense of the relative temperature scale and now could gage that anything over 32 was really uncomfortable. This was already orders of magnitude above that tipping point.

We walked along wide avenues and then down more winding streets, older, more packed-in, the huge rock of the Acropolis topped by the graceful columns of the Parthenon always within view, always a presence, the orientation point of the universe of this strange jumble of a city, messier and more complex as it approached that nexus.

We wandered, stopping to look at vendors’ stalls, talking as we walked about our trip to Ion’s hometown on the coast the next day. I was young. I remember little of the heat’s oppression, but I do see the steps up the side of the huge rock cliffs as we began our climb to the Acropolis, the height stretching upwards, Ion translating the remarks of a Greek family, also climbing, that the thermometer had reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  On another day, a climb that would have meant little to bodies still unaccustomed to limits now felt almost insurmountable under the burden of the sun’s fire.

But here we were at last at the feet of the Parthenon. Breathless with the climb, we stopped for long moments to adjust our senses to the vastness of this spreading plaza, seemingly littered with huge boulders, broken columns and monumental marble buildings, partially in ruins. The sense of ancient beauty, ancient poetry, was like a fragrance of light incense over everything, wafting up and disappearing in a miasma in the burning heat. The etheric beauty of yesterday’s trip over the deep blues of the sea, the islands purple as we watched them glide by, still present like a refreshing taste on the tongue, offset the heat and the enormity of the climb upwards, even in its subtlety. 

It seems to me that the same self that I can touch now was stirring deep inside, gathering itself still, soaking in through skin dripping with sweat the experiences swirling around it, rather astonished as always to be there, as to be anywhere on earth.

As we had climbed, the image of the Parthenon floating somewhere behind my eyes was a presence well before we emerged at the top of the hill, a plane of rocks, columns and carved human forms. As we took the last steps, it felt as if we were emerging from a dark sea into the air above. That climb, that emerging from a place of rough, heated rocks and sweaty effort to a level place with stretching vista has echoed in my dreams, transforming over time.

And then there it was, huge, spreading in the near distance before us, a perfect rectangle somehow still despite what had fallen or crumbled from its remains. A symmetry of suggested space, looming there against the bright blue sky, it existed in a place in time and space that was mysteriously part of a continuity of the universe within, vast, containing now the turquoise sea, the fragrances of jasmine and grape, the sounds of waves, the smells of a classroom now in some time past, the call of the voices of strangers, the pricks of light in the ink of night.

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A Window in Time (Part 4): Race Across Italy

 

We moved up the road a bit to be out of the crowd of people trying to find a ride over the border into Italy. The weather I remember was that perfect temperature of the Mediterranean at the height of summer, the light the perfect light of the coast, bright yet full of contrast. We were content to just lean against a guardrail and wait. I was the one to stick out my thumb at the roadside, a young blond woman in shorts.

It may have been hours. It may have been minutes. A medium sized truck stopped and motioned for us to climb in. We gathered our things quickly and jumped into the back which was all packed with sacks. As we started through the border, I could see the Italian Carabinieri standing in groups on the other side with their high brimmed hats, dark blue uniforms and white bandoliers across their chests. They looked distinctly threatening, like holdovers from Fascist times. I braced for barks of authority as we reached the customs booth. But all went well. We jumped down off the end of the truck and presented our passports. They were duly stamped by officials who smiled and said “American, ha!” as they looked from my face to the passport. We climbed back in, Michel waving to a group of Carabinieri as we passed. They smiled. He said, “They actually look friendly!” “We’ll see.” I said.

The next two or three days are a blur in my mind’s eye. We must have taken the faster autoroute, the A-10 up away from the coast, bypassing around mountain towns. I remember only miles and miles of hills full of dark trees, small fields up against grape vineyards, and small towns with red-tiled-roofed houses in what must have been Liguria. And then into the region of olive groves, through to Bologna. Somewhere along the way that first day we got a ride with a truck carrying local table grapes to market. The drivers let us sit in back with the roll-up door open and motioned with hand gestures for us to eat all we wanted. We sat with our backs braced on crates of grapes, comfortably watching the scenery unwind behind us, eating grapes and throwing stems out the open back. I remember the fragrance of the grapes and washing our sticky hands with water from a big plastic bottle but nothing more.

We must have gotten stuck in Bologna for awhile, waiting for a ride on the outskirts of town. We never went into any of the cities we passed. There was no time. We had to make our rendezvous for the ferry in Bari in two more days. We ate what we had in our packs and snacks bought at wherever our rides happened to stop. There were long periods of waiting by the road. It is all a blur except for one night spent in a grape vineyard.

It must have been late evening when we stopped travelling, dropped off by the last ride of the day. We looked around in our darkening surroundings and saw we were on the edge of a large vineyard. The soil under the vines was smooth and inviting. The ground felt cool after the heat of the day. Tired out, we walked back into the rows out of sight of the road and spread our woollen bags under the vines.

The soil was soft and fluffy, a perfect place to stretch out in relative comfort. We had no consciousness of the probable toxic herbicides and fungicides we were breathing in the dust. Lulled to sleep by the surrounding silence and the new fragrance of ripening grapes, we slept soundly until morning light.

There is nothing else I remember of our journey across Italy, although there must have been some difficulties. Maybe it was just problems getting rides that stretched out the time, but we were late for our rendezvous in Bari. The day must have arrived when we were still at some distance down the A14. We must have been worried. Our friends might have bought tickets already for the ferry, counting on us to arrive as planned. If we were late, would they leave? I’m sure we doubted that, yet there would always have been some tiny element of uncertainty. Our mode of transportation meant we had no control over the speed of travel. I faintly remember some irritability between us as we stood by the side of the road for hours with cars passing us.

When we finally arrived in Bari, we were twelve hours late. My memory is filled only with the large concrete buildings around the ferry dock, large boats in the harbor. It was morning when we finally got out of our final ride, the morning after the departure of the ferry we’d planned to take. We found our friends rather quickly in the waiting area for the ferry. As soon as we spotted them, we ran across the hall calling to them and hugging as we met. There were apologies and stories of the days we’d spent apart. They were clearly also road-weary eyes, anxious glances, hair a bit uncombed. It must have seemed to all of us, standing there together, that we were looking into some strange mirror. When they had finally realized we were not arriving for the ferry the night before, they knew they must spend the night in Bari, but by that time there were no hotel rooms available. They had managed to stay in the small apartment of an odd man from Romania they’d met at the ferry terminal. They’d had been glad to make it safely through the night and out early in the morning.   As part of the tumbling stories, they told us that the next ferry for Greece wouldn’t leave for another few days. We would have to travel down the coast to Brindisi where a ferry left the next day for our destination, Patras, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea.

Michel, now torn with the prospect of going to Greece, decided he did, in fact, need to get back to Strasbourg and see his family for the rest of the summer. He had promised. He left us that day on a bus, hoping to see us once more in Paris at the end of our trip. It was never to be. That was the last we ever saw of him, waving goodbye from the window of the bus, standing in the aisle, tanned but with tired eyes, crouched over a woman in the seat.

Now it was just the three of us, standing there suddenly feeling a bit shy of each other, strangest for me to be alone with my friend and this man I had know for only a day or two. I remember the run into the ferry terminal from our last ride, bags flapping around our shoulders, the wait on the line of people boarding with bags of grapes, bottles of wine and suitcases, duffles and backpacks—families with several children, couples old and young, young Greek men returning home from some job abroad, jovial and rowdy, a few young Greek women with a grandmotherly looking figure with a shawl, a group of tourists, shepherded by a young woman speaking English—a whole crowd all flowing up onto the three deck ferry, heading out across the wine dark sea.

The wine-dark sea. The peace that passeth understanding. The passage to the land of myth, the land of heroes would be a long one. We wandered with the crowd looking for a place to sit and spread out our gear. There was a quick consensus that the top deck was the best place to be. From there we would see the sea and the islands as we steamed along and feel the fresh air in the possibly bumpy waters of the Ionian. We found a bench next to a big metal box full of life jackets and settled down as the huge ferry pulled away from the dock. From where we sat, we watched as the multicolored two and three-story stucco buildings moved by us, gleaming from the shore and we passed through the wakes of the tall-sailed blue, red and green yachts in the harbor out into the more open turquoise water.

 

There Is Nothing That I Know

Wind rocks the top of cedar tree
shivers its thin, dark feathers.
The warm damp smell of spring
as present in air as warmth can be
in cool wind’s weathers.
My bones are cold as only
some cold grief can bring.

There is nothing that I know.
Yet this is what I know.
At the beach today
I saw land slide
Abruptly down a cliffside
Poured from above by some unseen shift
Its roar erased by waves’ unceasing sift
of water against rock, a symphony with the wind.
Suddenly pooling earth as if just another drift
of waterfall.
Then done and as if it must
Just let one more rock come tumbling down
smug,
still, as if it had  just been a pile of dust
all along.

A twisted tree atop another sandstone cliff
with roots that hold it fast and stiff
above the open air.
Along the forest trail huge limbs of trees
Wounds gaping orange here and there
In some time past
were there above me with their papery leaves
still clinging when I walked here last.
It seemed they had been part of living tree,
suspended
against the pull of that firm gravity
gracefully from strong trunks.

I see in memory the big wind
I hear its howl
but in this here, this now
they never were but
logs, limbs spreadeagled
among the litter of leaves
and ginger sprouts and beetles.

There was an ache, a dull burning behind my eyes
from some night past when I remember worry
burned like biting flies
Even as they saw those things in some slight flurry
of what seemed to be the grey light
of late slanting afternoon
Tohee chirping, hawk in flight

Now a memory, gone.

Is it now, or was it then I felt the warmth
of those sweet patches of air
as choruses of song
that seemed to carry messages of spring.
Is it now or was it then
My thoughts rise on some cold wing
Chill and bare.

What I know is that big things
are always changing in the wings
Of time.
Moving imperceptibly towards some shift
Mountains buried in the drift
of sand in winds
Rocks perched on cliffs while cities come and go
tumble from the years of snow
pressing in their cracks.
And become a hidden hill in some forest below.
While the smallest things forever in and around
find some quiet movement in the ground.

What I cannot see is the movement of these
smallest things
The stir of atoms of the air, dust of star and strings
of dancing proteins in each cell
Light that glimmers as if  at the ringing of some clear bell
in their shift from state to state

I know nothing of the great.
This is all I can know
Cedar shivers when wild winds blow
Earth roars swiftly down the cliff
Then is quiet as a drift
in streams of time.

There is nothing
That I know

Yet this I know.

 

 

The First Day on the Road

 

From a motel in America

 

Traveling in our own country

in that edge of time

between autumn and winter

The few tenacious trees that

still cling to vibrant songs of red

so joyous in defiant singing

in the concert of grey, brown and dark green

that has begun.

 

Not like the holiday travels

in warmth and sunshine

we wake to darkness and drive

until well after darkness comes again

shivering inside to think

of working in the cold of night

to create some little home

to shelter sleep.

 

This first night instead

tired and full of the sickness

stretching around the globe

like a fungus

we find a motel by the road

and feel the comfort

of a bed and sheets and

nice soap

as if travellers from

a place of tents

and beds on hard ground.

A Window in Time (Part 2): To Lyon

We left together that morning, the three of us, Michel, my blond friend and I.  I remember ( although other details are gone) I had a rough khaki pack I had bought at the Puces in Paris along with the French Army surplus greenish-grey wool blanket roll I carried with me. I must not have brought much with me to France since I seem to remember carrying it all easily, along with the thick French translation of Faulkner’s “Light in August” I’d bought on a whim in one of the stalls on the Seine to see how southern America venacular translated into French.

We hitched a ride, if I remember, with a friend of Michel’s, southwest out of Paris on the A-10 toward Orsay. We must have had a ride out of Paris that morning since I have no memory of sticking out our thumbs in the middle of Paris. We were bound on an adventure to the south of France before Michel had to return to see his parents in Strasbourg at the end of the summer. Our tickets home from Paris in September left us plenty of time to escape the skeins of our parents’ concern in a time when the only communication back home was through American Express offices. What they didn’t know wouldn’t worry them. They would think we were busy in Paris or taking train rides together to places like Chartres. Dreams of my mother pulling up behind us on the road in her white convertible with the red interior pursued me for the first week and then faded into the background of our grand adventure.

By nightfall of the first day, we must have made it to Orleans or some small town nearby it on the Loire. We camped somewhere on a grassy verge of the rocky river bank, stretched out under a cloudy sky, grateful for the warmth of summer in our woolen sacks with rough sheet linings. We listened to the river and talked of the nearby chateaus we would never see, just as we had stood beneath the Eiffel Tower together, marvelling at the huge black iron girders, counting our sous and imagining the trip to the top. We saw nothing of the town that morning but stuck out our thumbs after eating bread and cheese from our packs.

Since the three of us had to stick together, hitching was slow. Drivers were not at all reluctant to pick up people along the roads, but most were pairs of women, single men or male and female couples. To “faire du stop” was an accepted way for people to travel, especially through the countryside, but cars were small and three at a time was hard to get. We took to having my friend and I stick our thumbs out by the roadside while Michel sat back somewhere slightly out of view.

We got a few short rides that day and made it to somewhere in the central rural farmlands. It was probably somewhere in the area of what is now the Department de Cher. It was getting quite late. Twilight had set in. It was likely our last ride had been in a truck that took us on a rather circuitous route. We found ourselves walking in the countryside where stands of trees still grew and inviting grassy spots under cover of trees clustered here and there beside a stream that ran behind the farmhouses. We were hungry and starting to feel more than a little tired and footsore. The shoes I’d brought with me had given me blisters and I had taken to walking barefoot when I could. The heat of the day had cooled enough to make the pavement tolerable but my legs ached. All we wanted was a spot to bed down safely for the night and a bit of seclusion. If I remember, we were somewhere near the towns of Theilley or Vierzon in the region of Cher. I will never know for certain.

Michel said he would go ahead a bit to check things out and find us a good spot to camp. In a few minutes, he came running back to join us.

“There’s a farmhouse and a barn just up there. I think we can find a spot there. There are lots of trees and a stream. I know the kind of people around here. They’re farm people like from my region. They’re okay about sleeping in barns.”

We walked together around the bend. By now it was fairly dark. Nightbirds called from the trees. He pointed to the little house just ahead to our right along the road. Quietly, we came up to the drive and stood together, looking for a dark opening somewhere in the trees. He motioned for us to follow him and whispered,

“Follow me”.

Behind him, my friend and I crossed a grassy yard only partially concealed by bushes from the front door of the little house. A ladder leading to an upper hay door was built into the side of the small barn. We watched Michel mount it and climb quickly up through the square opening. He turned and motioned for us to come up.

We ran the rest of the small distance and followed him up as quietly as we could through the door and into a loft strewn with hay. Hay bales we stacked on the far side in step-like fashion. We paused for a moment, watching Michel looking around for the best spot, feeling worried about what the farmer would do if he found us here.

“Are you sure this will be okay?” my friend asked.

“I’m sure!” he said. “People do it all the time in the country.”

Still feeling a bit like criminals, we helped him find a nice spot surrounded by bales and together, pulled hay from the floor and made a big luxurious bed for the three of us. We spread out our bedrolls and chose comfortable seats on the bales. Michel opened his pack and pulled out the bottle of wine he’d bought that morning. Bread, cheese, sausage and wine and maybe a cucumber or two we’d brought from the last epicerie we’d passed—each of us pulled some contribution from our pack. We drank from the bottle and feasted. Michel sang a song from Alsace with a little more gusto than we thought was prudent. To quiet him down, we tried to get him to teach us to sing it. We felt gay in this extravagant accommodation and somehow secure. After a while, we stretched out in our bags, sidling up to each other like puppies, talked softly until we were yawning and drifted finally into to a very peaceful sleep.

The sun took a while to reach us. When my friend and I finally opened our eyes, we discovered Michel was gone. We had a few moments of panic, quickly straightening out our hair and cleaning up the things left from dinner, thinking he had taken off in the night and left. In our flurry, it took a moment to notice that his head had appeared in the opening.

“I thought you’d never see me, you cabbages! Come on. Get up!” he said. “Bring your things. The farmer’s wife has breakfast for us. Don’t keep her waiting!”

We pulled on our packs, fastening them as we went, and followed him down the ladder.

At the bottom, a woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a long soft cotton dress of muted colors tied around the waist, stood with her hands softly clasped in front of her, following our progress down with her eyes. She spoke to Michel in an accent hard for us to follow. We looked at him with eyebrows raised in question. He interpreted for us, with a slight smile. “She wants us to come into the kitchen so we can tell her what we want. She has different flavors of fruit syrup for our water and she wants to know what you like.”

As we followed them towards the front door of the house, I noticed a tray laid out on a small metal table next to the stone path. There was a bowl of brown eggs, sausage, small misshapen peaches and a bowl of blackberries. Spoons and bowls were stacked on the other side of the wooden tray with a bottle of milk, ready for our breakfast.

Inside the kitchen was small and lined with shelves holding jars, boxes, glasses, plates and bowls. Near the rough sink was a line of bottles with spouts holding liquids of vivid purple, red and brownish yellow. She explained the different flavors to us, all homemade—cassis, blackberry, cherry and plum is what I remember.

She handed us each a glass and poured a bit of our chosen syrup in the bottom of each. She motioned for us to fill the glass with water from the pump at the sink and then told us to come with her out the door. She handed Michel what looked like a tablecloth which he put over his arm. She picked up the tray and led us down a path into the trees near a stream. Michel spread out the cloth on the grass and the three of us sat down together. She carefully placed the tray on the grass next to us and told us that the eggs were fresh from her hens and boiled. There was a homemade loaf of bread and a jar of jam. We motioned for her to join us and she shook her head.

“J’ai encore manger. Bon appetite!” she said and turned and went back to the house.

I watched her go down the path, crossing through the shadows made by the morning sun. I still see her in my mind’s eye.

My friend and I looked at each other with delight. Michel was more blasé.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it. This is what we do in the countryside.”

We sat together, leisurely eating until we had consumed every crumb and talking comfortably about the road ahead. The interweaving of French and occasional English was now familiar. I remember how my friend and I, after feeling the isolation of inadequacy, had now begun to feel a re-emergence of our familiar selves, able to communicate more of the subtleties of our thought. I remember my delight when I began dreaming in French and then when I was able to understand some threads of the quips that passed from one person to another with the speed only the French seem to possess.

Filled with the beauty of the countryside and the various tastes of the food on our tongues, we stacked things on the tray and followed the path through the bushes back to the farmhouse. The woman was doing something in the yard and came to us when she saw us approach. She took the tray and firmly refused our efforts to help her clean up. We followed her into the kitchen where she and Michel compared notes about life on a farm, brief phrases intelligible through the thick argot. My friend and I asked about the various things we saw around the kitchen in jars and bottles, curious to find out more about the life of this woman here in her little house. She explained each one, Michel trying to find ways to explain the names that seemed unfamiliar.

 

It was almost noon when we finally waved goodbye and set off back to the main road with more boiled eggs, cheese and bread stored away in our packs.

After such lavish accommodation, it was natural that the day that followed would have to be one of the more challenging. Car after car passed us by on the autoroute. Trucks whizzed by. We made it from one village to the next small town in the Centre-val-de-Loire.

Our next ride took us a short way to a turn off to a farm. We walked for a while on the highway as the afternoon turned toward evening and the light began to really fade. It had been raining on and off all day and now it was cooling. Cars were speeding by, on the way home with no thought of stopping to pick someone up. We realized we had to find a place to get off the road and bed down. But where? As with some American roads, there were fences along the roadside and fields beyond with no cover.

Up ahead a kilometer or so, we could see the lanes part to start a divided four-lane highway. There at the division was a patch of grass with a few trees. We walked along down the right side until we were close. Waiting for a time when there we no oncoming cars that could see us, we dashed across the two lanes to the island, ducking behind the bushes we’d seen from a distance. An empty bottle and a few wrappers indicated that we weren’t the first to think this was a decent spot to camp.

We spent a cold and noisy night on the grass and gravel, making sure that the first to wake up woke the others. Just before dawn, we rolled up our bags, changed into dry shirts and ran over to the other side of the highway.

As the morning dawned, it was clear that things would go better. The first car didn’t take us far, but it took us to a small village square where the cafe was just beginning to open. We waited for awhile on a bench while the man who swept the streets did his job and the cafe owner rolled up his metal door, put out the round metal Richard ashtrays on the tables and put out the chairs that had been stacked for the night. As soon as he was ready, we crossed the cobbled square and went in to order our cafe au lait and baguettes with butter. Satisfied, we went back out to the road and once again, stuck out our thumbs.

The next car that stopped was a nice little dark blue Renault with a young couple. They let us pack into the back with our bags with no fuss. As we drove off, we were already chatting about our trip, where we came from and where we were headed. They lived close by and were out on an excursion to the market and lunch, but it was “le weekend” and they were up for anything. They asked us if we had time to see something in the countryside, a bit of the beaten track. They promised to take us there, have lunch with us and then drive us to the turnoff to Lyon at Clermont-Ferrand. They had friends there and would have a drink with them that evening.

Of course, we had time! Chattering as we went, Michel helping us to understand some of the quips and jokes, they turned off the highway onto the two-lane secondary roads. After some time driving through pleasant countryside full of the vistas of fields and roads lined with Plane trees, coming through village after village, they turned off the road onto the grounds of a small ancient stone church.

“This is what we wanted to show you,” they told us as they stopped the car. We piled out.

“It’s one of the oldest existing churches in France. The original monastery was built in the ninth century. There are catacombs under the church. Come, we’ll show you. It’s wonderful.”

As we approached the entrance made in the ancient way with arching mortared stones, I remember the sense of enchantment that we would be led to such a place where clearly very few tourists ever came. They lead us through the cool echoing nave with a few rows of wooden benches. I remember only a simple altar in the transept and stain glass window of a simple figure of Christ behind it in the small rounded choir. They went ahead of us to the side of the transept, opening a small door. As we followed them, we could see stone steps curving downward. We climbed down the spiralling stairs to a stone area below.

There, with the only light from a few bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, we saw the rock partitions that once formed some part of the walls of monks’ cells. We wandered through the whole underground warren which seemed to extend out behind the actual walls of the church above. The couple explained this had been the original monastery, built in the Ninth Century. In that beginning time, there had been a small Romanesque chapel above. The church had been expanded and rebuilt in the Twelfth Century. Renovations had begun and then stopped in some more recent time. Now without a congregation, it was maintained somehow by local people and government funds.

We stood there for some time, each in separate spots in that enclosed space. Clearly, our thoughts were given wings by the place. There was something in the confined air, the cool stone that provided me a peaceful, pervasive sense of the centuries of meditation, the endless hours of chanting that had reverberated here and in the church above. It seeped in through my skin into my bones, sending a shiver through my spine.

We left quietly, with a reverence for a place of worship neither my friend nor I had absorbed growing up with modern intellectual American parents. To this day, I don’t really know where we had gone or whether I could find that place again.

The couple drove us to a cafe in a village square in their little blue Renault. I’m sure we shared a carafe of local wine and some ham sandwiches on lengths of baguettes, but I have no real memory of that meal or of the rest of our time with them. They must have dropped us off as promised.

I think it was late that afternoon that a large car with a middle-aged man at the wheel stopped to pick us up. We climbed in with a bit of hesitation, exchanging glances, as he was a fairly large and burly guy who gave off a sense of authority and the habit of power. He was going to all the way to Marseilles and would drop us off when the road diverged to Cannes. A long way. Michel motioned for me and my friend to take the back seat as he went around to the front passenger seat, but the man said,

“You and your girlfriend can have the back,” and he motioned for me to sit in the front, next to him.

We drove and drove, taking occasional bathroom breaks at small gas stations. At a seeming truck stop somewhere before Lyon, late at night, he turned to me as we were headed back to the car and said, “You can drive, right? I’m tired. You drive now.” It was clearly stated more as an order than a request.

Fear immediately gripped me like a sickness in my stomach.  I had never driven a stick shift.  I’d never even driven in France. I had little experience driving in any unfamiliar terrain, let alone another country whose regulations I didn’t know. I had no international license.  When I tried to explain,  he simply brushed me off with a shrug and a little gesture toward the passenger door. 

“I’ll help you shift until you learn. You’ll figure out the rest,” he said.

Michel put his hand on the man’s shoulder and tried to pull him aside to talk but the man just turned away.

“I’ll drive,” Michel said.

“No,” answered the man, “I want her to drive. It’ll be good for her.”

The three of us managed quick glances back and forth and Michel whispered,

“I’ll stay awake. Don’t worry,” and opened the driver’s door for me.

The man got into the passenger seat and showed me the controls, running through the gear stick and how to shift with the clutch pedal.

“Now go ahead,” he said, “Start ‘er up and I’ll help you shift to get on the road. Once you get going, you can stay in fourth for a while.”

I turned the key and put my foot on the clutch as he instructed. With his hand on the gear shift, he instructed me about when to depress the clutch and when to release. As we lurched forward he yelled,

“Gently up on that pedal! Feel it engage!”

Once we were on the two-lane highway, he sat back in his seat and said, “When we’re approaching a town, let me know. I’ll help you.”

He must have dozed for a while. I felt Michel’s hand on my shoulder even so often as he whispered,

“D’accord?”

My friend slept next to him in the back, waking when Michel leaned forward. Stiff with anxiety, my brain on constant alert, I managed to gauge my speed, feeling very lucky that our car was almost alone on the road.

Signs began to tell me that we were approaching Lyon. I could see the yellow of the sodium street lights in lines near the horizon, reaching inwards towards in other in the distance like a study in perspective. I said,

“We’re coming to Lyon.”

The man woke and stretched, his arm muscles evident, yawning loudly. He said,

“Slow down a little. I’ll tell you when to put in the clutch and when to shift.”

I suddenly felt his big hand on my thigh. “I’ll guide you,” he said.

As we approached Lyon I was almost frozen with fear. His hand was creeping further towards my crotch, gently massaging. I tried to pull my right leg over towards my left, making it harder for him to reach. It did no good. His hand just followed. My mind, half concentrated on navigating through stop lights, traffic signs and instructions from the man to do things like turn off the headlights through town, and half on keeping him from groping further without infuriating him, we somehow made it through the city. Now I was really worried. His hand was still there. What would be his next move? Would he make me stop the car and get out? I seemed to remember that at some point he had mentioned a knife he kept somewhere in the car, maybe the glove box.

After leaving behind the lights of the city, he suddenly said,

“I have to pee. Turn into this next station.”

I slowed the car and turned in to a parking lot, his hand alternately helping me with the gear shift and going back to its anchor on my leg. We came to a stop and he opened his door and got out. Thinking he would go towards the building, I was appalled to see him going around the front of the car, clearly headed towards my door. Panicked, I tried to sidle over to the passenger seat. As I tried to manoeuvre, I caught a glimpse of Michel opening his door behind me and lurching out of the car. He stood in front of the man, blocking him from reaching for my door. He put turned to me through the partially opened window and said,

“Go. Get out!”

My friend in the back seat was opening her door as I made it to the other side, opened the door and slid out.

My friend and I looked around wildly to see where we were. Over to the side of the parking lot was a group of men, standing around talking and smoking. A couple of tractor trailers were parked near them in the lot. In the blur of the next minutes, there is a haze in my memory, but it is likely that Michel, having lived in the rough section of Paris, was used to carrying a knife and used it to keep the man where he was near the car. He was suddenly with us, pushing us towards the group of men, putting one of us on each side of him, his arms coming up around our shoulders. As we came up on the men, Michel glancing behind him, he said,

“Who can give us a ride south? There’s a little money in it.”

Them men looked at each other, one looking down, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out on the pavement.

“I’ll take you. How much?” he said.

Money changed hands. The driver motioned for one more bill.  Michel peeled it off  and arms still around us, said,

“Which one?”

and pulled us quickly over to the cab the driver had indicated. He boosted us up the high step. The driver motioned us through the door and opened the curtain behind the seat to show us the bed behind.

“You can ride in there,” he told us.

The driver’s partner climbed up into the other side, we got through into the little loft behind the cab and the driver got in, pulled the curtain closed and started the big engine. Michel parted the curtain as we began to pull away, looking into the lot.

“He’s still there, standing by the car,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll try to follow.”

“God! That was too close!” said my friend.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes. Too close.”

 My heart pumped wildly in my chest as if feeling a rushing thaw after being frozen in my chest for hours. Michel pulled out a bottle of wine from his pack, opened it and we passed it around until it was gone. The driver’s partner handed us back some packets of nuts and we began to relax. I think we laughed together at Michel’s gallantry, I hugging him around the shoulders in relief. Michel leaned over to the driver and asked how many hours to Cannes. Since it was quite a few and he was going all the way, we stretched out on the bed and dozed off, the driver’s partner snoring in the front seat.

(To be continued..  More about the journey to Greece in the time of Joanie)

Smoke

The smoke blew down from Canada.  In the heat of the summer, fires were burning in the forests of British Columbia. For a day or so, people went about their business, wondering a bit why the sky was grey when the sun seemed hot behind it. But grey was a familiar sky.

A dawning realization spread towards the end of the day, moving from person to person. Those who were spending the day working inside began to hear it from those who were outside. These were not the grey skies of the often cloudy northwest, but skies filled with a cover of smoke. There was no real smell of smoke, no real choking sensation, no sharp sting in the eyes to let you know it was there. Many people continued living their lives without real awareness. Perhaps they noticed a dryness in their throats and a cough when they settled down to sleep, wondering if it were some new kind of summer allergy.

As the days of grey skies went on, day after day, even those ignoring the signs began to feel an uncertain, inchoate longing for the blue skies of July, the white of puffs of clouds in the openness. They longed for vastness. Although they might not feel a choking sensation in their throats, something within them seemed to be gasping for expanse. Their spirits were confined, dulled, a bit desperate. Each day they woke up to a hazy white sun, each evening watched the globe of that same sun, now still high on the other side of the sky, turned red and a bit blue. Each night, they thought certainly they would wake to a sun rising in the light blue sky of early summer morning, but the grey and the strange light went on.

They began to look for signs in the sky, some small opening into the blue beyond. They pointed out to each other some thinnings in the cover, places where it began to look as it does when a fog that has blown in from the sea begins to burn off in the sun of late morning. For a few moments, the thick haze seemed to be slowly dissolving, becoming blue. Then the layer of grey closed over again.

The air seemed dead and quiet. The sounds of chirping birds and the choruses of morning and evening were all but gone. Even the roosters seemed silenced. It was a restless stillness, cooler than July should be. It was a Sunday quieter than Sunday, no lawn mowers, weed whackers, no grindng tractors. Only one or two motorcycles zoomed down the road during the day. Even those seemed muffled.

Even in the dullness of the days as they stretched on one after another, in the pervasiveness of the yellowish-green light, many seemed oblivious. Perhaps it was a kind of optimism, perhaps a dullness in their own spirit that matched the haze hanging over, a shade of compatibility. Exercise outside became taxing, contributing to the dullness. Occasional shadows on the grass, summer light penetrating briefly, produced moments of joy, sudden and fleeting relief from the dinginess and the luminous gloom.

There began to be murmurings that the much anticipated solar eclipse, approaching in just two weeks’ time, would prove to be an anti-climax, a disappointment after all this daytime darkness. From somewhere in the subconscious a nagging worry began to gnaw its way through into some part of awareness that the rest of the summer would pass away without the blue of the skies. This strange greyness would just blend into the long, familiar greyness of winter without the needed dose of sun, cheated of the storing away of the light.

There had been times before this, once the year before I was born, when, for a day or two at a time, fires from Canada had blanketed parts of the US and even Europe with darkness. This, then, was rare, but not unique. In addition to the burning of hundreds or even thousands of square miles of forest, the intensity of the smoke that summer long ago came from burning grasslands and the intensification of slow-burning peat fires in British Columbia. Street lamps came on in the middle of the day as far away as Florida. The plume of smoke may have been carried all the way around the globe by the patterns in the wind. Communication was spotty in those days. Since, as now, the smoke plume was high, there was no smell of smoke as darkness descended during the day. People thought perhaps it was Armageddon or nuclear blasts or both. It was uncanny as this grey is uncanny. Eight years later, the fires of 1958 burned over 3300 square miles of forest by the end of the fire season. So far, the fires now burning to the north in British Columbia had consumed about half that and it was not yet mid-August.

These days of sombre summer leave me restless, as if gathering energy to burst out above the haze to somehow bathe in the blue again. It is the same energy that fuels the desire to break through the fog blanketing so much of the human spirit.

As with the shifts in the wind and weather that are sure to come, I sense there is a deeper shifting that has already begun.  We will have to ride skillfully on that wind and see what haze it can dispel, what skies it will reveal.

A Window in Time (Part 1): Bastille Day

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Today is Bastille Day.

I will tell you a story of a long ago Bastille Day in Paris the summer after the massive anti-capitalism and antiwar demonstrations and strikes of 1968. 

When I think of France I normally don’t think of Paris, busy, noisy, beautiful Paris, but today I’ll speak of a time in Paris when reality roiled its back like a sea monster briefly breaking above the water, creating storm waves all around.

She was eighteen, with blondish hair past her shoulders and blunt-cut bangs, a veteran of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, a student of English literature and of French and Russian and with the naive sense that her mind was capable of encompassing everything. Her parents were paying for a trip to Paris as a high-school graduation present, a cultural break before college. She and a friend from high-school had gone to New York together and purchased round trip tickets to London on Icelandic Air. The friend was also eighteen, with hair even longer and blonder than hers. They’d known each other for years but weren’t the most intimate of friends, she having found a consuming friendship with an intense young woman who had moved to their school from Palo Alto. France on Five Dollars A Day in her suitcase and on a strict budget, she and her friend had flown to London with hits of good Owsley acid hidden in their socks, meant to be shared at just the right moment.

Arriving at Heathrow, they’d gone directly to stay with a family in Oxford who knew the friend’s parents well. He was a Don at New College (the older part of Oxford) and the archetype of a cozy English prof, well rounded in body like a well-stuffed armchair, part of the stuffing extruding from his mouth in the form of upper-crust British English, full of overfed vowels, almost impossible to comprehend but occasionally well worth the heightened effort.

His wife was charmingly hostesy, and his grandchildren, all golden curls and perfect manners, made them feel they’d walked into a delightful post-Victorian Era British children’s book, especially when the children were released by their grandmother for “a romp in the garden” with the two friends. They went punting and picnicking on the Cherwell, a tributary of the Thames, where she dutifully made the rookie error of following the punting pole into the river, drying off in the sun on the river bank where they ate the things from the beautifully packed picnic basket. She learned how to say “boot” instead of trunk, and “strawbs” instead of “strawberries” and managed to choke down meat pies for the first time in her life.

From there, they took a train and then a boat across the Channel where they began their adventures by hooking up with a good-looking “older” man in his twenties who already worked as a journalist. They were intrigued by his aura of left-wing professionalism and his dual Greek and British passports.

They disembarked in Callais as the largest darkest orange full moon she’d ever seen rose over the tree-lined roads, golden fields of grain and red poppies spreading out on both sides. They camped in a tent with their new friend, putting up with some fairly gentlemanly groping, he trying to convince them to join him in Spain where he was headed for an extended vacation. They refused, feeling in part still dutiful and in part, even in their innocence, divining what a good thing he thought he’d found with two young American girls, perhaps eventually willing.

In the morning, he drove them into Paris in his Renault and deposited them in front of their student pension on the Left Bank on Rue des Ecoles where they’d somehow managed to rent a room for a month. They were enrolled in the summer French Intensive course for Foreigners at the Sorbonne, a process accomplished in those days totally by correspondence. They shared a room on the third floor with french doors opening onto a tiny balcony with iron grillwork. There they could sit on the window sill and watch the life in the street below and become absorbed in the lives of the people in the opposite flats.

They went to classes fairly regularly for a week or so before getting fed up with the slow pace of things. They were learning more French in their adventures around the city, where they went to cafés, wandered endlessly together or alone, shopped in the bookstalls on the quays of the Seine, explored Notre Dame and the Ile de Paris, sat on the quay in the evenings with German students whose big rucksacks were always there to lean on and their near-perfect English an entryway into the easy relationships of youth.

After a while, when they had practically stopped attending classes, they met up one evening with a young Frenchman on the quay. Young and ready for opportunity, he had approached the international group sitting around a guitarist and focused on the two blond women speaking a mixture of English and French. He was from Strasbourg, working-class and adventurous. He impressed the girls by teaching them argot and gallantly buying them a special dictionary of slang from one of the bookstalls.

Michel was his name. He was their age, friendly and easy-going and clearly interested in the friend with long blond hair for more than conversation. They went together to Greek restaurants deep in the Latin Quarter and drank cognacs so late into the evening that the two friend got locked out of their pension more than once. That was when he introduced them to the place where he lived in an Arrondissement on the other side of the river. The apartment where he lived with two other “mecs”, likely Algerians, was in a rough neighborhood. He’d bring back baguettes, butter and milk for breakfast and make them coffee in bowls with heated milk.

It was coming up on July 14th, Bastille Day, the day the two friends had chosen as the occasion special enough to use their smuggled acid. They consulted together about whether they could trust Michel enough to share it. After several days of hesitation, they decided to risk it. Down on the quays, they had all smoked pot with the German students. They knew he was no stranger to mind-altering experiences.

That evening, the three of them sat together on the edge of the quay and discussed the possibility. The two friends were now comfortable enough in their command of French that they were able to communicate some of the subtleties of the situation. As best as they were able, they described the experiences they’d had with acid, trying to give him a basis for a decision about whether it was something he wanted to take on.

In the end, although not without some trepidation, he did. He wondered, as privately did they, how prepared he was for an experience so extremely outside of what he had known growing up in his small town in the north of France. He told them more about what Bastille Day was like in Paris, full of fireworks in the street, parades down the Champs Elysee, crowds of people, parties, dancing, music and street performers everywhere. Everyone excited and happy. Everything festive. Everybody drinking lots of wine. How marvellous it would be with the enhancement of LSD, thought the two friends.

The night before, they slept at Michel’s apartment in the 17th Arrondissement, the two girls on the floor in bedrolls purchased at the Puce. The morning was bright, sunshine filtering in down the air shaft in the middle of the tenement and into the only the small apartment’s only window. They made cafés au lait and shared a baguette and then ceremoniously took the tiny white pills the friends had brought from the States, one each.

The two young women put on their long skirts and sandals and gathered up their passport wallets with enough money for food for the day. They waited as Michel, taking his time, had made sure he had his carte d’identité in his wallet and had combed his hair. Together they set off into the bright sunshine.

As they walked through the Arab quarter of Barbes Rochechouart, the streets were beginning to fill with people off for the holiday, walking in groups or with families, setting off to their favorite cafe to start the day. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy, people at their ease looking forward to spending a festive day together in a city with endless possibilities and endless beauties.

They descended the stairs of the Metro station at Brochant, Michel running ahead and turning to usher the girls down the next flight with a theatrical bow. They glanced shyly at each other as they stood on the platform waiting for the train, communicating without words the intoxication of an experience of the world that was beginning to unfold.  Even the expanse of the train station itself felt it held an intimation of how each object, each sight, now contained infinities of beatific interest.

After changing trains several times led through the maze by the savvy Michel, they emerged at the Louvre station, not to brave the pressing crowds of the museum itself, but to begin their day of wandering in sight of the old palace at the Tuilleries.

They walked through the gardens, seeing each familiar sight with total freshness as if its very nature had opened itself for their detailed examination and contemplation. People passed and left their impressions. The play of the children around the fountains took on its proper meaning. They were exhalted.

As the day began to turn to afternoon, they sat in a café with glasses of wine in front of them, mostly unconsumed, speaking to each other occasionally in the flow of all the magic unfolding in front of them in the street. There were mountebanks and fire eaters, street dancers and singers, but the people themselves were the most extraordinary sight. It seemed somehow that a festival of human oddities had begun, with families of giants and midgets, people with facial deformities, the enormously fat and enormously skinny, all gay and splendid in their holiday attire.

They walked again across the bridges, passing through the throngs who were promenading there, some chatting vociferously to each other, others laughing and gesticulating with their arms. They hung on the balustrades and watched the river below for a timeless interlude before crossing to the Ile de la Cité to enter the Cathedral.

What magnificence. They were pulled through the doors into the flow of people towards the center. As if on an island in the middle of a swirling lake, a white and scarlet-robed priest rose above the crowd, intoning words of ritual. The inner walls of the cathedral seemed to vanish. They found themselves immersed in another world, suffused by an incredible light that colored the air itself with jewel-like glow. The smoke of incense rose up into the arches of the heavens above, creating beams of white. They stood entranced at the edge of the gathering as a bell rang repeatedly from the altar, creating reverberations of color and sound throughout the nave. When the big bell of the cathedral itself began its tolling the universe itself was encompassed in the sound.

They were eventually pulled back through the doors to wander the grounds. There they walked on the grass and stone grass under the stupendous stone arches of the flying buttresses. Between the cathedral walls and the river, they became lost together in some zone of wizardry.  The air was beginning to scintillate with the colors of the sparklers that passer-bys held and spun in circles with their arms. Fireworks seemed to be coming from everywhere in the sky, sending sparks of light throughout the atmosphere, hovering around people and buildings, swooping like galaxies here and there. Time passed. Wonderful beings went by, singing.

In the midst of it, someone made a decision to climb the tower to see the gargoyles. Somehow directions were sought, money was exchanged and tickets bought. They climbed the long stairs of the north tower to the top to look out over the river and the city and commune with the gargoyles. What creatures they were. Some seemed to have flown tremendous distances in their travels and to have gained enormous wisdom. That afternoon, the three friends stood with them and heard many stories as they rested their heads against their stone wings.

Towards the end of the day, in Michel’s wake, they took the metro to Montparnasse, sat with the singing hoards of students gathered on the steps of Sacre Coeur, and watched the sunset, the city spread out before them. Flowers of color sprouted suddenly as fireworks exploded here and there amidst the sparks of the white street lights.   They thought that never before or since has there been such a magnificent sunset or such a joyous choir.

As the darkness began to penetrate into the streets of Montparnasse, they felt the lassitude of evening seeping in through their skins. The effect of the acid was on its downward mellow glide. The comfort of a little food and an apartment where they could relax began to call to them.

Even their young limbs were feeling a bit weak as they set off together again towards the Metro. After a miraculous navigation in the Metro, they were back in the Barbes Rochechouart.

They found a café where they bought some pastries from the case and then some fruit from the corner épicerie open late. They climbed wearily to Michel’s apartment where they put on a Bob Dylan record and stretched out his bed, contentedly munching pastries.

They must have dozed for a while. She woke to a pounding somewhere. Michel was up and moving to the door. The night was black at the window.

As she watched, he undid the locks and opened the door. As he pulled it towards him, a man seemed to slump and fall forward into his arms. Michel caught him around his back in a kind of rough embrace and walked him back into the room, easing the heavy form onto a chair. It was one of his roommates. Some guttural conversation was exchanged in the thick argot of the streets, incomprehensible from where she now sat on the bed, alert and more than a bit unnerved. Michele turned to the two friends, both now fully awake, and said in an excited voice,

He’s hurt. He’s been stabbed. He’s bleeding from his side.”

Over the next moments, they heard the hurried story of a fight in the streets Michel had so far be able to glean from his friend. Suddenly the door was being pushed open again by the other roommate, hair wet with sweat and shirt torn. He turned and quickly locked and latched the door behind him. There was more hushed conversation. A plan was being made.

The wounded man turned to the two young women groggily and explained in stilted but proper French that the wound was not grave, just painful. He was clearly in shock. Michel explained that the second roommate would take the wounded one to a neighbor’s apartment where he would be safe from the gang who had attacked him. They would wait until morning, evaluate the knife wound and see if a doctor were necessary.

In case the trouble followed his friend to their apartment, Michel thought it best they all leave. They gathered their things and the uneaten pastries and quietly and sleepily left the apartment, taking back streets around the scene of the fight.

It was too early for the Metro. Despite their drowsiness, they decided to walk back towards the girls’ pension on the Rue des Ecoles, where the concierge would not open the door for several hours.

A glow still lingered through the fatigue as they walked. It was mysterious and a bit exciting to be moving through the unfamiliar dark streets back towards the Seine. After what seemed a long and rather weary trek, they found themselves on the Rue Rivoli of the Right Bank, passing the back of the grand palaces of the Louvre.

They kept going until they reached the Boulevard de Palais and took a right turn towards the bridge to the Ile de la Cité. They could see Notre Dame not too far off, its towers, buttresses and rosette window brilliant in the dark city, a huge light among the nests of white Parisian street lights. They began their walk across the Pont St. Michel towards the quays of the Left Bank on the other side.

As they came to the bridge, sleep beginning to pull at them, they saw three women silhouetted against the white lights of the other bank, the colors of the Seine shining from below. They were leaning against the grey-white stone of the balustrade to the right, chatting, their murmuring conversation punctuated by quiet waves of laughter. One had her leg bent backwards behind her, letting her spiked heeled dangle from her foot, relaxed, black hair piled partly on her head, part hanging down her back.

As they came closer, they could clearly see the heavy black eyeliner and the red lips of the woman turning towards them. She looked pointedly from Michel to the blond friend walking close behind him. She spoke to Michel with flashing eyes and a little toss of her head. Of the string of invectives, the only word that came through clearly to the two girls was “Putain!” By the direction of her glance as she said it, they knew she referring to them. Her companions laughed and turned to lean their backs against the rail, the better to be able to taunt the two girls as they walked past. One of the leaning women spit on the sidewalk as they continued to snarl their insults.

Michel stopped several paces from them and turned to the girls, saying,

They’re insulting you and asking me why I’ve gotten myself some blond whores when I could have them with dark hair like me. It’s impossible! I have to defend your honor.”

As he said it he turned, swearing back at the women and pulling a knife he evidently had had in his pocket. He motioned the girls to go around him into the middle of the street as he kept his knife out in his extended hand and faced the women.

As the two friends began to move, the dynamic suddenly shifted. The two leaning women had pushed themselves from the railing and run around the first, skirting Michel. They were rushing towards the two friends, yelling, arms flailing at them with their claw-like fingernails. Suddenly they were on them, kicking with their high heels, scratching, biting, Michel trying to keep the other at bay. They felt as if they were being attacked by some pride of lithe cougars.

Knife hand extended towards the woman still holding the balustrade, Michel reached back with the other arm and grabbed his friend by the shoulder and then around the waist. She reached to grab her friend’s arm as he pushed and pulled them past the wildly flailing, screaming women. Grabbing her hand now, he pulled both friends in a human chain, yelling,

“Run! Run!”

With her friend still clinging to her hand, Michel yanked them with force into the intersection at the end of the bridge, heading for the opening of the Rue Danton. He turned to look as he said,

They’re chasing us!”

Panting, he added,

I think a guy has joined them. Keep running up here until we get to the police station. It’s just a few blocks. Run! Run faster!”

At that moment, she realised her friend’s hand had slipped from hers. She jerked as hard as she could on Michel’s hand as she wrenched around, trying to see behind them, screaming her friend’s name.

Stop, Michel, stop! I can’t see her! I lost her hand!”

But as she yelled, he just jerked her hand harder, pulling her forward. “We have to keep running. She’s following. I’m sure!”

Everything was happening in a blur of movement, nothing coherent.

When he had pulled her forward for a long block or two, both of them losing their breath, their tired legs buckling under them, they slowed as he turned and then stopped in the middle of the street.

I think they gave up,” he said.

He called out to the friend who must be just behind them, just around the last corner. No answer. He yelled again. Nothing. They began running back the way they had come, rounding bend after bend with no one in sight.

Desperately, she began joining him in calling out for her friend, their voices reverberating in the cobbled road. They finally arrived back at the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michele, near the bridge, having seen no one in the echoing streets.

She wasn’t sure what happened then. There was some confusion in her memory. She remembered there was a kind of greyness that hit them, followed by a perplexity of movements and ideas. She thought that somehow, after trying the police station with no result and wandering the streets in search of their friend, the sun had come up and the city around them was beginning to wake with a bit of a hangover, wobbling a bit here and there. She thought she bought Michel a coffee and a croissant and the sat for a few minutes in the first cafe to open on The Boule Miche.

By then, it was late enough to start back to the pension on Rue des Ecoles nearby to see if their friend would return there.

They walked along the quay where the bookstalls’ owners were just opening up the stalls and arranging their books for display. Passing each one, she felt rosy pangs of already nostalgic love for these men and women and their stacks of French and foreign books and art prints.

As they turned the now-familiar corner onto Rue des Ecoles and approached the entrance to the pension, she looked up at the third story window with the open French door, curtain billowing slightly outward through the opening in the breeze. There was nothing to indicate whether her friend had returned. Michel walked with her to the heavy wooden door. She opened it and looked up the stairwell, then turned and asked Michel to wait while she went up to check.

She climbed the stone stairs to their door and opened it with her key. With profound relief, she saw her friend lying there in her bed, asleep, still dressed, with the sheet pulled over her.

She saw her stir and called her name gently. Her friend’s eyes opened as she looked at her with a hint of accusation.

What happened to you?” she asked, in a rush, guilt flaming her face.

We were so worried! We’ve looked all over!”

Her friend half sat up in the bed.

My hand pulled out of yours and you didn’t stop. I yelled for you, but Michel was yelling too and no one heard.”

She shook a little as she said it, giving a kind of soft sob. The story tumbled out.

I had to think fast. I turned and ducked up an alley until they’d gone by. Then I ran back towards the quay as fast as I could go. When I got to the road by the river I saw a little car approaching the intersection. I ran out into the street in front of it and waved my arms. There were some guys running up after me from the bridge. The car stopped and someone started to lean out of the window. I didn’t wait. I just ran up beside the car and jerked open the back door and slammed it behind me. There was a couple in the front seat looking back at me as if I were crazy. I just yelled, ‘Drive away!’ Fortunately, they listened. After we’d gone a block or two and I could stop looking behind us, I explained what had happened as best I could. I asked if they could drive back and see if we could find the two of you. They did, but you were gone. They took me to get coffee and then back here as soon as the door was open.”

They hugged each other tightly and a bit tearfully, feeling shaky, and then went down to the street to reassure Michel. They all hugged there on the sidewalk, young and shaken, and agreed they needed to go to their own respective beds and get a good sleep. The bone-tired weariness and dullness of spirit at the end of an acid trip had overtaken them. The sun was warming up what promised to be a hot July day. They kissed each other on both cheeks and said “À bientôt.”

She and her friend climbed back up the stairs, threw off their sweaty sandals and clothes, closed the top shutters to keep out the sun, stretched out under their cool sheets and fell greedily into a deep sleep, as welcome as a long drink of water after a journey through the desert.

Her shame returned only in those dreams that happen just before waking as she finally stirred in the cool of the evening after Bastille Day, having slept away the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bird

https://archive.org/details/BachCelloSuiteNo.1PreludeYoYoMa

 

“…Above all
Did Nature bring again that wiser mood
More deeply reestablished in my soul”
Wordsworth, Prelude

 

Approaching home after my walk, beginning to wonder again about plans and decisions after clearing my mind, a great bird flew across my view from west to east.

It was so large I took it at first for the heron, so long, wings spread so wide, tail like some darting dessert lizard.

But then I saw a bit of curved beak in the profile of the head. A Golden Eagle perhaps. Since the head wasn’t noticeably white, it couldn’t be one of the Bald Eagles that perches in the big cottonwoods on either side of our fields. As I watched, it flew to one of these tall dark trees at the back of the garden.

I walked into the orchard behind the house to get a better look. It was perched high up, far enough from my place on the ground that I wasn’t able to make out the true color of its head against the grey and misty sky. It was so large, so tall, impressive there in that grim still-winter tree. It seemed to be some huge, mysterious bird, neither this nor that. I stood and watched for some time, trying to make it out, until it took flight again, swooping low behind the barn up the hill.

It must have found some prey there in the grass. After I had come in and taken off my muddy shoes and walked through the house to hang my coat, I saw it fly into the biggest cottonwood at the entrance to our drive. Through the dining room window, I watched as it began to peck and tear at something hidden between its feet on the branch. A group of starlings and crows gathered in the branches, one flying in, another flying off, slightly below and to the side. They eagerly caught particles of what it ate as it pulled off morsels with abandon and gobbled them, head thrown slightly back.

Through the binoculars I grabbed from the kitchen drawer, I could see the feathers on its great head were wet and ruffled, plastered to its head leaving bare patches between the rows. The feathers were not yet white but, from the shape of that head, the glimpse of an eye, they clearly would become so. Its forehead sloped into the large hooked beak, its body substantial and heavy, balanced on strong legs. It must, in fact, be the offspring of the pair of eagles from the nest behind the house on top of the big hill to the north, maybe from two or three years past, coming back to find a territory of its own.

Maybe it has been the one to claim the huge nest where it was hatched, reinforcing it with twigs and mosses as have his ancestors, year after year, maintaining its ancient continuity. I’ll watch as I go about my business day after day and see if it returns to the big cottonwood, itself to watch and wait with the patience of nature’s flow.

The Art of the Infinite

The sun was opening up swathes of brightness through the clouds, pools of sunlight spreading through the fir trees and onto the grass.  The car found its way into a parking spot on the drive near the front of the museum guided by some visceral memory of the circular drive around the dark hill at the entrance of the park. She got out and walked down the sidewalk to see the full east-facing entrance to the Museum. It was just as she remembered, yellow-white smooth stone and panels of etched glass gazing blankly out past the grand opening through the trees on the other side of the road, out towards the white pyramid of the volcano, poised in the middle of this symmetry.

As she approached the glass doors, there was a fragrance, if only in the mind, of some mildly oriental incense, of some kind of calm green and blue excitement, of a woman’s perfume mixed with fir scents and the cold, clear notes of marble and granite. Or maybe it was chilled music that touched the senses as subtly as fragrance.  Hard to tell. It reminded her of the moment, years ago, in the Modern Art Museum at the Smithsonian, when, as she walked down the swoop of the white marble staircase with a sense of the elegant expanse of air, of an openness all around yet defined, she caught sight of a friend she hadn’t seen for months, there with her mother, standing as if they had just entered the museum. Then she had been swept by a sense of the poetry inherent in moments of such confluence of beauty, memory and emotion. As she was now.

It was a day set apart. A moment seized, unanticipated. Going through the doors, there was a brief moment of disorientation, of change. Memory slipped out of place. A young woman stood guard at the opening to an atrium. Just beyond her, statues of Hindu gods were balanced on the walls and chairs and tables were set around as if for an outdoor café. Different somehow. The woman at the opening smiled and, with a gesture of her arm, directed her to the ticket desk hidden at the side.  The man at the desk, sober and dark, worked with his computer and then handed her the ticket. No limits of time. No demands.

She wandered into the atrium, taking surreptitious photos of a mother, young and graceful in the midst of her shed belongings, seated on a café chair, discreetly nursing her baby. She, of course, could feel the momentary direction of energy towards her back and turned slightly to catch the photographer snapping shots of the Shiva statue perched on the wall.  The graceful young woman settled back to her baby and the photographer moved on to the gallery through the door.

When she was young, she had met some interesting people, one in a town in Vermont. He was someone who frequented the food co-op, wearing the clothes of a farmer, but not one. His long blond hair fell in ringlets and combined with his beard, curling under his chin. That, along with the slight rosiness of his cheeks and the blue of his eyes, gave the ironic impression of a Fragonard angel. One day as he was shambling down the street in the small town, she decided to say hello. They had a friend in common that gave her a bridge into conversation. They saw each other several times over the next weeks, and then, when the winter holidays were approaching and they were both going back to family, she asked him for a ride in his camper truck to New York City. She could easily catch a train from there to her hometown in New Jersey. The memory of this journey connected with the objects of the museum in one of those internal sworls of mind.

They headed down the road in the evening a few days before Christmas with his German Shephard, Blue, in the back of the camper truck. The cab of the truck was cozy and they talked for hours as you do at the beginning of friendship. When he discovered they were nearly out of gas, it was already late into the night, somewhere in upstate New York. He said he had an uncle who lived in the town coming up and he knew where he kept a can of gas in his garage. We pulled up to a dark house where he found a key to the garage under a pot. In the dark, he found a gas can which he emptied into the truck and they were on their way again. It was only the next day he discovered he’d used his uncle’s kerosene instead of the gas. It was part, somehow, of the whole of it all.  Somewhere along the ride, they’d asked each other about their families. He’d told her that his was not particularly close. His father was a doctor who was busy a lot and his mother a psychiatrist who was fairly distant. He gave the impression they were a rather ordinary family living in an apartment somewhere on the east side, not far from the river. He said they would be fine with putting her up for the night.

She slept for a while. Sometime after midnight, she woke up as they pulled up in the large drive in front of an enormous building where a doorman in livery was awake all night, watching the door. As her friend opened the truck door and stepped out, the doorman came out of the building through the glass doors of the entrance, smiling, greeted her friend by name and hugged him. As she began groggily collecting her things, her friend took Blue of the back of the truck. As the dog started to look around for a place to pee, lifting his leg after the long ride, her friend rummaged in the back for the leash. Realizing it wasn’t there, he pulled the belt from his loose, dirty jeans and improvised a tether around his collar. Ragtag as they were, the doorman joyously ushered them all in through the enormous sliding glass doors, into the waiting elevator. When she asked her friend “Which floor,” he said, “It’s at the top. This is where Johnny Carson lives, too, and Truman Capote, parts of the year.”  As he pushed the button, she felt the sweat of a long day, and the damp crumple of her cotton shirt tucked into jeans that hadn’t been washed for several uses and felt some stirring of self-consciousness that combined itself, as they began their ascent, with the sinking of her stomach and the sleepiness in her head.

After a long climb, the elevator doors opened and her friend knocked on the door that faced them. After a few minutes, it was opened by an elegant woman with blue eyes and stylishly timed blond hair. She wrapped an arm around her son’s shoulders and ushered them in, as if greeting guests at two in the morning were a common event. Here is where the stories begin to converge.

They walked together through the entrance hall towards a partially opened door where the lights of a kitchen could be seen. She turned down another short hall and opened the door to her son’s room, which was immaculate and clearly expensively designed. As he put down his things on the bed, his mother said, “Your friend will sleep in the Ming room. It’s all set up. Show her where it is. I’m going to bed. Welcome! See you both in the morning.”

Her friend kissed his mother good night as she smiled and turned to go down the hallway. He gestured for her to follow behind his mother who quickly vanished through a hidden passage.  She continued ahead of him and found herself in a huge room surrounded by windows that seemed at least fifteen feet high, revealing the black night sky and a full landscape of skyscrapers’ lights. As she turned to take it in, there through the windows on one end of the room was the familiar outline of the United Nations Building, standing guard next to a dark river, a dominating presence through the glass. Large forms in cases loomed here and there in the dim expanse of the room. She turned and whispered, “What are those big things?” “Ancient Chinese bronzes,” he replied, “Bells and urns.”  Quite awake now, she said, “What is this? Where are we?”  “In my parents’ apartment,” he said. “My father is a collector. Come this way. I’ll show you to your room.”

She turned to face the stairway as he pointed behind them. In front of the staircase sat an astonishing figure, which she first took to be alive, one arm extended gracefully over a lifted bent knee, one leg curled under him as he looked out at them serenely. It was a man with long hair, lithe, clothed only in what were now just bare outlines of a loincloth, life-sized, carved of some light colored wood, riddled with wormholes, ancient yet intact. His presence was penetrating and palpable. She recognized him immediately somehow and was understood. Now calmly alert, attentive, she climbed the stairs behind her friend. They found the door to the bedroom, opened it and switched on a soft light to reveal a four-postered bed of dark wood with a flat canopy, simple and elegant. “That’s it,” he said, “The Ming bed. It’s actually more comfortable than it looks. I think you’ll like it.” He said goodnight and closed the door.

The next morning there was a tour of the bronzes, and an introduction to his balding, spectacled, Jewish father who strangely seemed delighted to meet her, this guest slipped in during the night. The father invited them into his study where there was coffee in porcelain cups and beautiful Persian miniatures, populated with elegant figures and lovers, and he showed her marvellous lithographs and etchings of artwork done for famous books. Marvel after marvel. Large Picasso painting of people feasting, eating lobster, in the dining room.

Months later, his son sat with her in his family’s estate on Long Island while he unpacked suitcases full of ancient Chinese artefacts that had just been delivered for his father, unwrapping each to handle and inspect it. This was when she saw the small jade bowl.  This was when she held in her hands a bowl made of light green jade, perhaps of the Tang Dynasty, precious beyond wealth, exquisite. It was so delicate it seemed to weigh as much as a bird’s feather, yet was big enough to be held in both hands. It was perfectly smooth over its entire surface, with no indication of any carving or etching. Yet the design of a lotus (or perhaps a chrysanthemum) was clearly apparent in the bowl’s bottom. When held ever so carefully up to the light from the window, the flower design floated somehow within the jade, etched in some uncanny way within, etheric, impossible.  Its beauty was a being, the soul of the stone itself, the cool slight pressure in the cup of her hands like a life. Of all the miraculous objects, this and the ancient wooden sage were the ones that stayed with her for the forty-five years that stretched between those objects and the ones of the Asian Art Museum.

These images walked with her as she entered an airy gallery lined with windows. Each tall window framed scenes of trees and sky in the park beyond. Three large glass cases each contained an enormous jade disc, ceremonial plates of different designs, each of slightly different tones of green, deep as oceans or light as heavens. Each floated between worlds. She stood in front of one and then another for long, long moments, mind as empty and infinite as the round surface of the plate, lost in the colors captured within endless layers of glaze—lost in the perfection of the curves and the roundness.  It is true there is no linear time. Here, as we’re perched on the swing of one year into the next, the transition point of one season at its depth into another, there is no way but to go beyond.